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When most of us think of undercover police work we think of Serpico, or Donnie Brasco. Gritty,leather clad, New York underworld glamour, and excitement. For many of us rural Wales is not the location that comes to mind. However for Stephen Bently this is where the majority of his undercover work takes place when he was part of what was Britains biggest drugs bust Operation Julie, which involved eleven police forces.
Younger listeners may never have heard of Operation Julie, but it was a very big deal at the time. Taking place in the mid 70s. Britain was changing having gone through the 50s where society tried on an ideal that never fully came to fruition (which still flaters zombie like through contemporary culture) and then the 60s where a new generation tried to throw everything the older generation had done out the window, at least in the films and books of the era, but reality for the working class man or woman was very different. Then we arrive at the 70s, an odd point where the face hugger of capitalisim hasn’t quite started starving communities of oxygene, but where new ideas and values still clash with what we assume is traditional. One area where these ideals came into conflict was in drug culture.
The 60s did not invent drugs, after all in Britian we’ve been drinking alcohol for as long as there have been people, but it did allow new drugs and routes to deliver those drugs, more direct contacts, and a growing market with the emergence of teenagers and young people as a commercial force, as well as a slew of glamours and alternative musicians and actors openly partaking.
However for most, and especially for those on Operation Julie, this filmic version of the 70s was not a reality, and instead drugs were mixed up with suspicious Canadian mobsters, tight knitt and isolated communities of Wales, and a long, long time pretending to be someone you are not.
Bentley talks admirably and openly about the impact the operation had on his mental health, and the lack of aftercare and support that he got from the force. One of the most psychologically fascinating parts of Operation Julie is how Bentley manages not just his dual identity, but how his experiences in Wales, and getting closer to the people who were involved in the making and selling of LSD changed him as a person. It feels obvious that Bentley could not finish the job and simply go back to who he was before, he needed to find a new self, and that was no easy feet.
Operation Julie, is not all philosophical musings on the nature of identity though. As well as detailing the set up of the operation and the part he played, Bentley goes into the personal aftermath, and also touches on current debates around drug policy and spy cops. With screaming headlines about new drugs like spice, and undercover police fathering children on the job, Bentleys experience could feel almost quaint, but that would be to do it a disservice. It is unlikely that we are going to have an avalanche of first hand accounts detailing undercover policing in the UK, so Undercover could be an important contribution to public debate on the future of both policing, much talked about at the moment, and also drugs policy.
If you enjoy this book, you may also enjoy Undercover, a BBC drama about a defence lawyer who is trying to right a miscarriage of justice, while her husband is concealing his own past.